The Last Witnesses

Text, photo and video by MARIE TELLING
May 2013

Elly Gross is 84 years old. She is small lady with a kind face and a gentle smile. She used to be much taller she says. It actually saved her life when she was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau at only 15 – because she looked older than her age, she wasn’t sent to the gas chambers. She now lives in Queens, where she takes care of her garden, paints and feeds the local birds.

In 1998 she visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and in the museum she recognized her mother and her younger brother in a picture taken a few minutes before their death in the gas chambers. That’s when she decided it was time to tell her story. She’s told it so many times since then that she always uses the same words to describe her arrival at the camp. “It was raining, it was as if the sky was crying for us,” she says.

Elly Gross says she lives for the Holocaust. She speaks to teenagers and students several times a month at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan. The story is always the same and with the years, she’s gotten so used to recount the most traumatic moments of her life that she rarely gets emotional. Dressed all in bright pink among a group of prep school students in black uniforms, she is the image of resiliency, energy and optimism. But back in her colorfully decorated Queens living room she tears up when she mentions her responsibility to bear witness : “I feel like I have to talk because of all those who disappeared.”

Sol Rosenkranz, 95, feels the same duty to tell his story. Not for himself, but for his relatives who did not survive the war. They were a family of nine before the Holocaust. Only two of them survived. “The dead people cannot speak for themselves, they need a spokesman,” he says.

Rosenkranz was 21 years old when the war started. Decades later he still remembers the names of the German officers who occupied his small Polish town and beat him up on a day of forced labor; and the name the family who fled the liquidation of their ghetto fifteen kilometers away from his home and whom he helped escape. He recalls the exact date, the 1st of March, when the Germans murdered everyone left in his ghetto. When he tells his story he doesn’t neglect any detail and tirelessly gives life to his memories.

After Buchenwald, where he was deported, Rosenkranz found his brother in Germany. There he met Sally, another survivor whom he ended up marrying a few weeks later. Together they left for the United Stated in 1946. Rosenkranz says he had had enough of Europe. Sally died in his arms fifty years later in their Los Angeles home.

When Jack Ratz became too old to visit schools regularly to tell his story, he decided to dedicate part of his home to his memories of the war. Books are scattered on the table of his Brooklyn living room. A picture of him as a prisoner during the war lies in an open suitcase. And posters with notes from thankful high school students hang on the wall. Ratz also lives for the Holocaust: he wrote a book about his story and a series of poems in Yiddish about his life at the Stutthof concentration camp.

Whenever Ratz introduces himself he tells you that he is a Holocaust survivor but the conversation quickly strays away to his wife who passed away and who was a real blond, and to his three children who all work in the medical field. He also marvels at his grandchildren, who are now also getting married. Ratz is a survivor and cherishes the peaceful life he’s found in the United States.

Like Gross and Rosencranz, he’s told his story countless times. He often reads a speech he’s written about his experience. but his voice still cracks whenever he mentions his mother. “I have no tombstone, I have no place where to visit my mother,” he says.

Gross, Rosencranz and Ratz are some of the few survivors who are left to speak today. Soon all the witnesses of the Holocaust will be gone.

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